Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The rightful King of France?

Louis XX – current cream of the Bourbons.

Couldn’t be worse than Chirac…

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Cameron wakes up and smells the (cold, stale) coffee

David Cameron’s speech yesterday on multiculturalism was gushed over by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: “I have not heard another British politician make such a sophisticated and vital intervention at a time when so many across the parties seem to have lost a sense of proportion, political sense and the instincts of true leadership.”

She adds that “his thoughts and ideas on Britishness today are so remarkable, Labour would be foolish not to steal them”.

Well now. I rather fancy it’d be a cracking wheeze to compare and contrast Cameron’s ground-breaking, visionary intervention with a drab, confused and outdated speech by Tony Blair on the same subject last December. Just to see if there’s any scope for idea-stealing.

Let’s have a heated debate
Cameron, 29/1/07:
“This debate we're having - about what's called community cohesion, about Britishness. We know why we're having it today. It's because two summers ago, young men chose to blow themselves up on London's transport system, killing 52 innocent people in the process. They were British Muslims. And they were acting under the influence of a terrorist ideology that is one of the great threats of our age. We have to face down that threat. But let us not in the process ever give the impression that this question of Britishness, this question of community cohesion, is all about terrorism, or all about Muslims.”

Blair, 8/12/06:
“But the reason we are having this debate is not generalised extremism. It is a new and virulent form of ideology associated with a minority of our Muslim community. …
“…integrating people whilst preserving their distinctive cultures, is not impossible. It is the norm. The failure of one part of one community to do so… is a function of a particular ideology that arises within one religion at this one time.

“Of course the extremists that threaten violence are not true Muslims in the sense of being true to the proper teaching of Islam.”

The British reaction
Cameron, 29/1/07:
“When there have been tensions, when things threaten to divide us, we've always reacted in a very British way. We haven't been hysterical. We haven't lost sight of the British way of doing things. We've been calm, and thoughtful, and reasonable.”

Blair, 8/12/06:
“I always thought after 7/7 our first reaction would be very British: we stick together; but that our second reaction, in time, would also be very British: we're not going to be taken for a ride. People want to make sense of two emotions: our recognition of what we legitimately hold in common and what we legitimately hold distinct.”

Muslim separatists and the BNP
Cameron, 29/1/07:
“First there are the ideologues and ideologies that don't want us to live together in harmony. Whether it's the BNP, or those who want to separate British Muslims from the mainstream. … For the BNP, racism isn't a scourge, it's a political philosophy. … And those who seek a sharia state, or special treatment and a separate law for British Muslims are, in many ways, the mirror image of the BNP. They also want to divide people into 'us' and 'them.'”

Blair, 8/12/06:
“Those whites who support the BNP's policy of separate races and those Muslims who shun integration into British society both contradict the fundamental values that define Britain today: tolerance, solidarity across the racial and religious divide, equality for all and between all.”

Multiculturalism, difference and division
Cameron, 29/1/07:
“Multiculturalism sounds like a good thing: people of different cultures living together. But it has been manipulated to favour a divisive idea - the right to difference - instead of promoting a unifying idea - the right for everyone to be treated equally despite their differences. So multiculturalism has come to mean an approach which focuses on what divides us rather than what brings us together.”

Blair, 8/12/06:
“The whole point is that multicultural Britain was never supposed to be a celebration of division; but of diversity. The purpose was to allow people to live harmoniously together, despite their difference; not to make their difference an encouragement to discord. The values that nurtured it were those of solidarity, of coming together, of peaceful co-existence. The right to be in a multicultural society was always, always implicitly balanced by a duty to integrate, to be part of Britain, to be British and Asian, British and black, British and white.

“We must respect both our right to differ and the duty to express any difference in a way fully consistent with the values that bind us together.”

All talk?
Cameron, 29/1/07:
“We've got to make sure that people learn English”

Blair, 8/12/06:
“we should share a common language. Equal opportunity for all groups requires that they be conversant in that common language. It is a matter both of cohesion and of justice that we should set the use of English as a condition of citizenship. In addition, for those who wish to take up residence permanently in the UK, we will include a requirement to pass an English test before such permanent residency is granted.”

Poverty and education
Cameron, 29/1/07:
“In some of our urban areas people are living in conditions of multiple deprivation. Not only is this an affront to social justice; it's also a breeding ground for resentment and division. So tackling poverty is a priority. And the most effective way of beating poverty in the long run is to give people in deprived areas decent schools.”

Blair, 8/12/06:
“Deprivation is a bad thing in itself and it can create the conditions in which extreme ideologies of all kinds can flourish. But it cannot be permitted as an excuse.
“The best way to deal with this is to do what, for a decade now, we have done: systematically to tackle disadvantage. The causes usually have nothing to do with ethnicity - they are low educational achievement and poor skills. But many ethnic minorities have been beneficiaries of the New Deal, the neighbourhood renewal strategy, the minimum wage, Sure Start and so on.
“We have made very good progress on education. We began a national programme aimed specifically at under-performing Muslim pupils in 2004. In June of this year it was doubled in size. In 2000, 29 per cent of Pakistani and Bangladeshi children achieved 5 good GCSEs, against a national average of 49 per cent. This year 51 per cent of Pakistani and 56 per cent of Bangladeshi pupils did so. The national average was 58 per cent. In 2003 only 33 per cent of Black Caribbean pupils achieved 5 good GCSEs. 44 per cent did so in 2006.
“The New Deals have helped more than 200,000 ethnic minority people into work. Jobcentre Plus have specifically targeted wards with high ethnic minority populations.”

Treatment of women
Cameron, 29/1/07:
“In certain sections of the community women are being denied access to education, work, involvement in the political process - and, surprisingly, even denied access to mosques. I'm told time and time again by women that the denial of these opportunities is not because of their Islamic faith but because of current cultural interpretations in Britain.”

Blair, 8/12/06:
“we stand emphatically at all times for equality of respect and treatment for all citizens. Sometimes the cultural practice of one group contradicts this.

“One of the most common concerns that has been raised with me, when meeting women from the Muslim communities, is their frustration at being debarred even from entering certain mosques.”

Can we fix it?
Cameron, 29/1/07:
“let's not pretend there are simple, quick solutions. … In the end, this is not just about government and politics. It is a social responsibility. We must each do all we can to make this a fairer and more just society”

Blair, 8/12/06:
“None of these things in and of themselves will solve the problem. But then, there is no simple action by government that can solve it. It requires an act of collective leadership from us all”

What comes out of all this, again and again, is that Cameron’s speech is mostly a second-rate rip-off of Blair’s. The main difference is that Blair’s contains far more detail and intellectual depth. Where Cameron differs in tone with Blair, he sways towards lowbrow illiberalism.

Cameron thinks that “the right to difference” is a “divisive idea”. Blair recognises that the aim should be for “people to live harmoniously together, despite their difference; not to make their difference an encouragement to discord”.

Blair balances “the right to be different” with “the duty to integrate”. He recognises that in the UK, diverse ways of life are a necessary consequence of individual freedom, but that this can only work if we “express any difference in a way fully consistent with the values that bind us together.” In this sense, integration “is not about culture or lifestyle. It is about integrating at the point of shared, common unifying British values. It isn't about what defines us as people, but as citizens, the rights and duties that go with being a member of our society.”

There’s another area of possible difference. Blair said:

“I think it is great that in British politics today no mainstream Party plays the race card. It is not conceivable, in my view, that this leader of the Conservative Party would even misuse the debate on immigration and that is both a tribute to him and to the common culture of tolerance we have established in this country today.”

But Martin Kettle, responding to Cameron’s speech, isn’t so sure:

“I do not see how a serious politician can allow himself to use a phrase like ‘the division that can come from uncontrolled immigration’ without embarrassment. This country does not have uncontrolled immigration, whatever the Daily Express may pretend. For Cameron to lend credence to the claim is either thoughtless or malicious. I'm not sure which of the two it is.”

Blair (as I’ve said before) is becoming an interesting politics lecturer. Cameron (as I’ve also said before) is becoming less convincing at aping a Blairish image while keeping his support on the right.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The prejudice that dare not speak its logic

I don’t have anything else to say about the gay adoption issue, other than to agree with Dave:

“The logic of the church's position does indeed seem to be that the ONLY people their adoption agencies automatically turn away are homosexual ones in stable relationships, including those who've signed a civil contract. The basis of this distinction between attached and unattached gays can only be the assumption that the former engage in homosexual acts with one another, which is against God's plan for procreation, whereas single lesbians and gays don't go in for homosexual acts at all. This is a strategy of don't ask, don't tell taken to a zany new extreme of self-delusion.”

Well, either it’s self-delusion or it’s a piece of political manoeuvring to avoid doing anything that might be seen as tolerating gay ‘acts’. Probably a bit of both, because whatever church leaders may like to think, they are politicians of a kind as well as clerics.

But either way, this row raises something that consistently baffles me: the link between religion and homophobia.

Now, of course, not all religious people are homophobes and not all homophobes are religious. There’s an all-too-common attitude of revulsion to the thought of gay sex (male-male much more so than female-female), which need have no religious component whatsoever. While I don’t like this view, I do at least find it intelligible.

But also, there are very many religious believers who in a lot of respects are good people but still hold on to their homophobia. And sure, it’s often an attitude more of pity than hatred, but it’s still a powerful negative view that gay sex among adults is morally inferior. I just don’t understand why these people, with conscience and empathy, are so happy to endorse a kind, just, loving creator who wants them to treat ‘practising’ gay people as wrongdoers.

I think it’s near-tragic that such people believe in doing good, and in many way achieve a lot of good things with religious motivation (the Catholic adoption agencies do indeed help troubled kids get better lives, and that’s great) – but they insist on putting poisonous icing on the cake. And they maintain that the poison isn’t really poison at all but just disinfectant. And if they can’t slip this little bit of poison into the good, wholesome cake that they’re feeding people, then they’ll shut up shop.

Paul’s Letter to the Bloggers

Having written the above, I’ve now seen this post from Paul Burgin, which clarifies things a little. He says:

“This issue is part of a larger battle. There are two types of opponents here among the Christian community. The first are homophobic, the second are not and yet try and follow what they believe the Bible tells them, and are struggling to get a balanced perspective on all this. Many who oppose on this issue wonder what the next battle will be on where they feel they are compromising their beliefs. They feel frightened and scared as the gay community are, albeit from a different perspective, and feel very defensive. Many Christians always feel they are a minority in society, whether it appears they are or not.”

The first type, I think, are basically those viscerally repelled by the thought of gay sex – and in this case they just happen to be religious. They’ll seize on whatever bits of the Bible that seem to endorse their prejudice. Nasty but, I think, intelligible.

It’s the second group that puzzles me: the ones who toe the line on anti-gay discrimination, even if their intent isn’t itself bigoted. (I wouldn’t care to guess at the relative proportions of the two types.)

Now, I appreciate that there’s the sense of being a part of a community and not wanting to rock the boat, and also the fear that secular liberalism is pushing a kind of amoral relativism (‘where will it end?’). Both of these things could motivate sticking to the dogma.

And, of course, there are parts of the Bible that aren’t exactly nice about homosexuality. But – and let me be blunt – there’s a lot of crap in the Bible. Leviticus 19:19 is my favourite piece of weirdness, banning the wearing of clothes made of linen and wool mixed together. More strange (and frankly immoral) rules here.

Hardly any Christians take this stuff seriously, but the “abomination” of gay sex is much more widely endorsed. So I think it’s likely to be, as Paul says, partly to do with a feeling of being a community, particularly an embattled one. But surely there’s more than that – the US, for instance, has a much larger, stronger and more confident Christian population than does Britain, but there’s still the same phenomenon of ‘non-bigoted homophobia’ (for want of a better phrase) among many of that population.

And more to the point: religious practice of course involves community identity, coming together around a place of worship – but centrally, ultimately, it’s about the relationship between the believer and god, and the moral code that god wants them to follow.

If so, then “compromising their beliefs” (as Paul puts it) is a matter of straying from god, not from the church or the community. Peer pressure (or guidance from church leaders) is incidental: it’ll hopefully push in the right direction, but it shouldn’t be relied on uncritically and must be rejected when it goes awry.

So I come back to my bafflement: why do these mostly decent people willingly accept that their kind, just, loving god wants them to treat gay people as wrongdoers? Do they clearly understand why they think gay sex is harmful and immoral (in the same way that we do about murder)? If not, if it’s not a good moral rule, then it can’t be god’s – can it?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Stop playing religion with children’s lives

Those poor clergymen are being persecuted again by the nasty ho-mo-sexuals. I bet some of you ideologically crazed PC liberals thought this adoption stuff was about discrimination against gay people, didn’t you? How wrong you were.

The Archbishop of Westminster explains:

“… to oblige our agencies in law to consider adoption applications from homosexual couples as potential adoptive parents would require them to act against the principles of Catholic teaching.

“We believe it would be unreasonable, unnecessary and unjust discrimination against Catholics for the government to insist that if they wish to continue to work with local authorities, Catholic adoption agencies must act against the teaching of the Church and their own consciences by being obliged in law to provide such a service.”

It’s an interesting sort of discrimination that holds everyone to the same standard, isn’t it? But perhaps he thinks it’d be indirect discrimination, which while not directly targeting certain groups does have the effect of disadvantaging them.

So, for instance, if certain groups refused on ideological grounds to do business with black people, any laws that mandated equal treatment of all ethnicities would in effect be indirect discrimination against these racists and therefore wrong – you see?

Hold on a minute – it wouldn’t be wrong at all! It’s the racism that’s wrong!

So maybe it’s the homophobia (polite, genteel and sympathetic, to be sure, but very much there) inherent in these Catholic teachings that’s wrong, rather than the discrimination against homophobes?

If the Archbishop and his fellow opponents of gay adoption (not just the Catholics, to be fair) can demonstrate why it is that being in a same-sex relationship makes you an unfit parent, then that would be well worth listening to. But in the absence of such arguments that go beyond just waving the Bible around or blathering about the “essential complementarity of male and female”, the presumption has to be that being gay is OK – and therefore that discriminating against gay people isn’t OK.

Martin Newland gets the wrong end of the stick:

“In an age of rampant relativism, secular society cannot understand the notion of an objective moral absolute and its deep claims upon the religious individual.”

It would be rampant relativism indeed if we allowed homophobia within certain sections of society but not others. ‘But look, it’s me! I believe in ghosts! Can I bash the gays now please? I promise to do it while feeling very sorry for them.’ The desire to prevent discrimination on grounds of sexuality is motivated by deep morality rather than modern expedient offence-avoidance.

And the Telegraph is characteristically demented:

“A simple amendment to the regulations has been proposed to stop adherents of Christianity, Judaism and Islam being forced to ‘assist, encourage or facilitate homosexual practices’.”

Aside from the fact that this phrasing prompts images of god-fearing folk being rounded up by the police and marched down to Clapham Common at night to hand out free Vaseline and Viagra, it’s a ridiculous lie. The regulations don’t force anybody to do anything. What they do is to prevent people from discriminating.

The issue here is dishonest moral blackmail: what the Catholic adoption agencies are doing is, to their credit, largely good (helping needy children find loving homes) – but also partly bad (insisting that no gay couple can possibly provide a good home). The insistence that if they can’t do the bad bits then they’ll be ‘forced’ to stop doing the good bits as well is disingenuous responsibility-dodging: they’re free to start treating gay people decently if they want to.

As the Independent says (and everyone claims to agree with the first sentence):

“The welfare of the child is paramount in adoption. If parents can be found who offer a child in care a secure and loving home, then considerations of race, religion, or sexual orientation must not interfere. Gay couples have proved that they are the equal of heterosexual couples when it comes to parenting. Ministers must call the Catholic bishops' bluff - and stand their ground.”

Yes, everyone claims to agree with the first sentence. But some of them go on to play religion with these children’s lives, and then accuse their detractors this of playing politics.

[Update: more blogging on this from Andrew at B4L, Andrew at wongaBlog, Ophelia, Scribbles, Tom H, Neil H, Matt M and very probably a whole bunch of other people as well. Tuck in.]

Why I was wrong about Iraq

I protested against the war. While I obviously didn’t approve of Saddam, I had a strong dislike of war and wanted a diplomatic solution. I was well aware of the vast oil riches that George Bush surely had his eye on and I instinctively distrusted the motives of militaristic right-wing governments – including the UK, so predictably yapping at the superpower’s heels.

The plight of the Kuwaitis, and whether Saddam could seriously be peacefully talked into withdrawing, hadn’t really entered my calculations.

So, in January 1991, aged 13, I went to a local anti-war demo. We held candles, waved placards supplied by the CND organisers, and we – my little sister, a couple of friends and me – were pictured in the local paper the next day. It pains me to admit that I was wearing a bobble hat. (NB this is not the most embarrassing thing I’m going to confess to here.)

My placard said ‘Choose Peace’, which I thought was pretty sound. There were others, though: some were ‘No War For Oil’, which seemed a shrewd analysis of what was really going on.

But there were some that made me inwardly frown. They read: ‘Arab Problems, Arab Solutions’.

It hadn’t occurred to me that political issues should be bracketed off into ethnic categories by anyone other than a dirty stinking right-wing racist. Seeing it put that starkly did make me wonder precisely what the anti-war case was all about.

My suspicion and distrust was primarily of the Bloody Tories – not of Britain itself, or the US or the West. So for the anti-war case to be put in ethnic terms was a bit of a jolt to my system. I didn’t like the idea that some bunch of foreigners should be safely bracketed off and left alone to sort themselves out as they saw fit – or rather, as the more powerful among them (i.e. Saddam and his army) saw fit.

I was an internationalist and an egalitarian (and still am, but in a less naive hippyish way), and I didn’t see why solidarity should stop at certain national or racial or cultural borders. I thought the state of the Gulf was a ‘Human Problem’, and I wasn’t against war simply because it would be our war, and we were the wrong sort of people to be involved.

My principled objection was to aggressive force, which I’d somehow judged a Tory (and Republican) war would embody more than had Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. What I didn’t oppose per se – at least, once I thought about it properly – was the use of force by Western governments, even right-wing ones that I hated for any number of reasons.

I grew up in a Labour family, but not, thankfully, one of the more stridently hard left variety. I was never encouraged to think Soviet communism was a good thing (or even a nice idea that had just had a few operational difficulties). And, as I say, I developed a pretty strong Toryphobia – but not any knee-jerk anti-West attitudes.

Example: I distinctly recall, at some point in the mid-1980s, watching a John Craven’s Newsround item about Reagan’s Star Wars programme, and there was a (doubtless impressive to me at the time) graphic simulation of missiles flying through orbits and hitting each other. The presenter was talking about whether it would work, and mentioned the possibility that the USSR might be able to send out a large number of small missiles to overwhelm it and get past. My reaction–

Are you ready to cringe on my behalf?

My reaction was to think that maybe I should phone up Ronald Reagan and warn him what they were planning to do.

Yes, yes, I know. In any event, what I actually did was to go off and play with my Lego or something like that.

So, maybe, despite my lefty pedigree, I was actually a neocon warmongering bastard deep down all along. But either way, I didn’t assume that Western imperialism was the root of all evil.

And I didn’t believe that the best thing to do about the troubles of these faraway dark-skinned types, with their religions and cultures of which we knew little, was to turn our backs and wash our hands. That was the philosophy of the ‘Arab Problems, Arab Solutions’ slogan, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

The reason that was wrong was the same reason Saddam – not Bush or Major – was the real villain of the piece. I could see that some of these ‘Arabs’ were powerful aggressors and some were defenceless innocents. The sort of ‘solution’ that would result was not hard to guess.

The change of heart wasn’t an instant epiphany when I saw the placard, but that did plant a seed. Within a couple of years I was aghast that we weren’t being tougher to stop the carnage in the former Yugoslavia.

All of this meander down memory lane is brought to mind by Nick Cohen’s telling of a similar sort of story:

“The [left’s] apparently sincere commitment to help Iraqis vanished the moment Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and became America's enemy. At the time, I didn't think about where the left was going. I could denounce the hypocrisy of a West which made excuses for Saddam one minute and called him a 'new Hitler' the next, but I didn't dwell on the equal and opposite hypocrisy of a left which called Saddam a 'new Hitler' one minute and excused him the next. All liberals and leftists remained good people in my mind. Asking hard questions about any of them risked giving aid and comfort to the Conservative enemy and disturbing my own certainties. I would have gone on anti-war demonstrations when the fighting began in 1991, but the sight of Arabs walking around London with badges saying 'Free Kuwait' stopped me. When they asked why it was right to allow Saddam to keep Kuwaitis as his subjects, a part of me conceded that they had a point.”

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

‘People earn more’ shocker – what a drag

“More than a million extra people have been drawn into the top-rate tax net since Labour took power as a result of Gordon Brown’s failure to lift personal allowances to keep pace with rising pay, The Times can reveal.”

I’ve never understood why some people get worked up about fiscal drag (when earnings rise at a faster rate than tax band thresholds and allowances). Actually, I understand perfectly well: those people are anti-tax generally and see this as a convenient pretext for moaning. Thus George Osborne:

“Fiscal drag is a sly and stealthy way of extracting more tax from earners while avoiding headline increases in tax rates. Since 1997, Labour has raised the marginal rate of tax for millions of middle-income families.”

What I really don’t see is any principled case for fiscal drag being bad, if thresholds and allowances rise in line with inflation but earnings rise more quickly (so technically I’m talking about real fiscal drag).

Say I earn £38,334, just below the 40% income tax threshold (which I don’t). I pay no income tax on the first £5,035, I pay 10% on the next £2,150 (£215), and I pay 22% on the remaining £31,149 (£6,852.78). My total income tax is £7,067.78, leaving me with £31,266.22. (See here for rates. I’m ignoring NI for simplicity’s sake; the principle is the same.)

Now, say my income goes up by 4.1% (the most recent figure for average earnings growth, for Nov 2006). And say the tax thresholds all go up by 2.7% (the Nov 06 CPI inflation figure).

This puts my new gross income at £39,905.69. Now I pay nothing on the first £5,170.95, I pay 10% on the next £2,208.05 (£220.81), I pay 22% on the next £31,991.05 (£7,038.03), and I pay 40% on the remaining £535.64 (£214.26). My total IT is £7,473.10, leaving me with £32,432.59.

Two obvious points: I am better off than I was, not worse off (net pay up 3.73%, which is higher than inflation so I’m better off in real terms); and I would be better off still had the thresholds been raised in line with average earnings growth. Well, I say they’re obvious, but the first is generally ignored by the right, who instead will fret about how I’ll ever afford to pay my increased income taxes.

So here’s the question: what, on principled grounds (not the ‘reduce-the-tax-take-by-any-means’ principle or the ‘squeeze-as-much-money-out-of-the-economy-as-possible’ principle), should be the default setting? Raising tax thresholds in line with prices or with earnings growth?

Let’s try a little thought-experiment with an interesting yet simple default setting: imagine there’s no tax at all and that society somehow just functions. Those of you who are hardline right-wingers will be very excited by this fantasy, so I recommend you dig out your John Redwood 1995 calendars and rejoin us after a few minutes.

(I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for creating that mental image.)

Right, so, no tax. And let’s again say inflation is 2.7%. What pay rise will I need to maintain my standard of living? Easy: 2.7% to stay as I am, and more than 2.7% to become better off in real terms. And as long as taxes stay at zero, if I get the inflation-only raise then I do indeed maintain my standard. That sounds fair.

Now, let’s see if we can devise a system of multi-band income tax that allows me to maintain my standard of living if I only get a cost-of-living raise, in the same way that our tax-free paradise does.

So starting from gross income £38,334 (net income £31,266.22) – as in my original example – let’s give me just a 2.7% rise and have the thresholds again going up by this same amount. My new gross income is £39,369.02. I’ll spare you the details, but now my total income tax is £7,258.61, leaving me with £32,110.41.

My take-home pay has gone up by… 2.7%. The system of uprating thresholds in line with inflation and not earnings produces an outcome that allows the maintenance of living standards every bit as well as does the no-tax scenario. The suggestion that this sort of uprating is a ‘tax rise’ that makes people worse off is plain untrue.

Of course, I get to keep less of my pay if income tax exists, but that’s rather the point. And where there are a number of progressive bands, the richer you become, the less you keep, but that’s also a defining feature of the system. If ‘me this year’ is richer in real terms than ‘me last year’ (with an above-inflation raise), then a higher overall tax rate is as fair as if ‘me this year’ is richer than ‘you this year’.

So why is uprating thresholds in line with average earnings assumed to be the morally acceptable default? Is there something sacrosanct about the proportion of the workforce in a given tax band? Is there something economically meaningful about using the 1997 spread of earners among tax bands as a baseline? What happens when the income distribution changes shape, as it does every year? Most pay rises are not the average, and jobs aren’t created and lost equally across the distribution. How do you justify all the bands moving at the same rate as average earnings when the people right by any individual threshold will likely be getting pay rises not identical to the overall average?

I’m asking pretty rhetorically, but if someone has good answers, I’m all ears.

(And sorry again about the John Redwood calendar thing. At least I didn’t say swimsuit calendar. Uughhh!)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Are we evil?

Norm and Paulie (and Norm again) have been talking about evil, specifically in relation to genocide.

Norm thinks:

“It is not uncommon to hear those who are more 'optimistic' about human nature putting the whole weight of explanation for this kind of human conduct on the external conditions - social, political, ideological - that produce or encourage it. But while it is essential to give these conditions their appropriate explanatory weight (for we need to know when people are more likely and when they are less likely to behave in cruel and murderous ways), that doesn't meet, much less dispose of, the thesis that there are impulses towards evil within the human make-up. Without that inner potentiality, the conditions could not produce the forms of cruel behaviour which the human record contains in abundance. We might just have been a species incapable of such behaviour - in the way that a cat is incapable of living on a vegetarian diet. But we are not.”

Meanwhile, Mark Braud writes about Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, from self-interest and punishment avoidance, through interpersonal accords and respect for authority, to social contracts and universal principles. Braund writes:

“If groups of human beings were to coexist peacefully, Kohlberg thought, it would have to be on the basis of some shared morality, common to all. … Kohlberg… did find evidence that all humans have much in common in terms of their moral reasoning and how it develops. In the current climate we need all the help we can get working out how to prevent the further deterioration of relations between opposing groups and cultures. Professor Kohlberg devoted his life to helping articulate a fundamental aspect of our common humanity.”

And it occurs to me, as I’m sure it’s occurred to many others before me, that perhaps the essential defining feature of human nature, our tendency to form groups, is both at the root of all in us that is good – empathy, cooperation, altruism – and at the root of much in us that is evil.

(I can’t say all evil – there’s plenty of purely selfish individual cruelty.)

It depends how big a group is. We find it easier to define our group contrast to another. And those outside tend to be viewed less favourably and valued less highly. Double standards apply. ‘Us’ doesn’t necessarily make ‘them’ the enemy, but it often works out that way.

If one has a stark dividing line, then in certain circumstances all sorts of atrocities against outsiders may be legitimated, with in-group solidarity helping the perpetrators to maintain some sense of self-respect. Whether Hutus turning on their Tutsi neighbours or slave-owners proclaiming “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, there’s a ‘them’ who just don’t matter.

Can we learn to define our distinct groups more respectfully? Or can a universal humanism have the emotional appeal to satisfy the need for a group identity?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Celebrity Brain Rot

A round-up of this week’s top stories.

‘Prominent’ Lib Dem MP still involved with ‘singer’
Pictured this week in Pictures Of People Who’ve Been Pictured In Magazines Magazine, he said that the relationship was “not some sort of joke”. He declined to say the same of his career.

Cosmologist has a crack at climatology
The state of the Earth has been gloomily assessed by an expert on the rest of the entire universe. How difficult can it be?

Slow news week misery averted by nasty people being filmed saying nasty things
A few ill-educated commoners have failed to conceal their prejudices while on television. Some of those involved had been on television before. The UN has described the situation as “the greatest humanitarian crisis since Bono couldn’t remember whether Darfur was in west or south Sudan”.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Containing terrorism: hard and soft power

Setting aside the fact that he’s still technically running the country – and I think it’s getting to the point where we pretty much can – Tony Blair is becoming quite an interesting politics lecturer.

His latest speech, on military policy in the 21st century, is worth a read. Of course it’s disingenuous and self-serving in some respects, but if you can resist the temptation to vent whatever Blairophobic fury you might have (as the Independent so tediously fails to do), then you’ll find a decent serving of food for thought. At the very least, it’s a good jumping-off point for discussion.

Blair draws on Joseph Nye’s distinction between ‘hard power’ (coercing others, economically or militarily, to do what you want) and ‘soft power’ (inspiring, attracting and persuading others to want what you want). He says, uncontroversially, that any state aspiring to relevance on the world stage must be wiling and able to use both when appropriate.

“There is a case for Britain… to slip quietly, even graciously into a different role. We become leaders in the fight against climate change, against global poverty, for peace and reconciliation; and leave the demonstration of ‘hard’ power to others.

“The reason I am against this case, is that for me ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power are driven by the same principles. The world is interdependent. That means… problems interconnect. Poverty in Africa can't be solved simply by the presence of aid. It needs the absence of conflict. Failed states threaten us as well as their own people. Terrorism destroys progress. Terrorism can't be defeated by military means alone. But it can't be defeated without it.

“So, for me, the setting aside of ‘hard’ power leads inexorably to the weakening of ‘soft’ power. This is especially so given the very purpose of the threat against which today, force is exercised. This terrorism is an attack on our values. … When the Taleban murder a teacher in front of his class… for daring to teach girls; that is an act not just of cruelty but of ideology. Using force against them to prevent such an act is not ‘defence’ in the traditional territorial sense of that word, but ‘security’ in the broadest sense, an assertion of our values against theirs.”

Blair is right: not only do many policy aims require the use of hard and soft power together, but also the use of one affects how well one can use the other. Well-chosen (and well-explained) exercise of military force can destroy enemies and create new friends.

The flipside of this, which he skates over, is that when hard power is wielded clumsily, it can seriously damage one’s soft power.

During the Cold War, which in many parts of the developing world was very hot and bloody indeed, the superpowers manoeuvred to attract other countries into their respective spheres of influence. As they were primarily looking to appeal to governments rather than populations, realpolitik was the order of the day. An impressive display of force may well be resented by individuals, but governments are more readily drawn to brute strength. Soft power was less of a concern in this respect (although in other ways it was important in weakening the Soviet bloc internally).

Today, the idiotically named ‘war on terror’ is very different. No country’s government subscribes to the al-Qaeda ideology, and none will adopt this as a way of strengthening its position internationally. The problem arises at the level of local and transnational non-state groups. The threat posed by these groups is a factor of how well they can organise and how many radical young Muslims they can recruit to their cause.

Yes, military action can damage terrorist groups and make it harder for them to operate. It can also provoke such anger that recruitment becomes easier. Whether this happens depends on how the use of force is perceived – something that the US, UK or whoever will have limited control over. The bin Laden and al-Zawahiri videos have low production values but can be more cost-effective where it counts than speeches and press releases from the White House or Downing Street.

As Nye puts it [free registration required]:

“The current struggle against extremist jihadist violence is not a clash of civilizations, but a civil war within Islam. We cannot win unless the Muslim moderates win. While we need hard power to battle the extremists, we need the soft power of attraction to win the hearts and minds of the majority of Muslims. Polls throughout the Muslim world show that we are not winning this battle”

Given this trade-off, the knee-jerk not-in-my-namers instinctively jump to the conclusion that the popular alienation cannot possibly be worth the tactical gain, and that the utmost priority should be to avoid making anybody angry. But of course the trade-off has to be judged for each instance. The exact opposite mistake seems to come to the surface in Blair’s speech:

“In the months after 7/7, we had a debate in Britain as to whether foreign policy in Iraq or Afghanistan had ‘caused’ the terrorism by inflaming Muslim opinion. The notion that removing two appalling dictatorships and replacing them with a UN backed process to democracy, with massive investment in reconstruction available if only the terrorism stopped, could in any justifiable sense ‘inflame’ Muslim opinion when it was perfectly obvious that the Muslims in both countries wanted rid of both regimes and stand to gain enormously, if only they were allowed to, from their removal, is ludicrous. Yet a large part, even of non-Muslim opinion, essentially buys into that view.”

This is so close to getting it right that it hurts. In fact, it is right. But it misses the point.

The key word is “justifiable”. Of course UK foreign policy is not a ‘war on Islam’ and does not justify the sort of anger that motivates terrorism. But reactions don’t have to be justified to be real: unarguably, the wars in Iraq and (less so) Afghanistan have in fact inflamed Muslim opinion. This is a consequence of his policies and, while unfairly so, it has to be recognised, minimised where feasible, and weighed when making future decisions.

It’s a curiosity – perhaps a tragedy – of Blair’s image-conscious premiership that in this area, where the perception of policy is so vital to its success, he uncompromisingly insists on his own rightness and that ‘unjustified’ opposition be dismissed.

I mentioned earlier the predominant state focus of the Cold War, in which the US policy of containment aimed to prevent Soviet influence from capturing governments. Evidently, while we want today to prevent the spread of the al-Qaeda ideology, the nature of the beast requires a quite different approach. Even so, some people (often US hawks) remain prone to drawing an al-Qaeda/USSR analogy. Blair improves on this somewhat:

“What we face is not a criminal conspiracy or even a fanatical but fringe terrorist organisation. We face something more akin to revolutionary Communism in its early and most militant phase. It is global. It has a narrative about the world and Islam's place within it that has a reach into most Muslim societies and countries.”

While Soviet communism and contemporary fundamentalist jihadism have/had similarly global ambitions, there is a vast difference in the scope and nature of their political influence.

Containing (or for that matter, rolling back) an ideological movement that exploits grievances to motivate terrorism is not like containing a hostile state that uses its international clout to win over new allies. While military and economic pressure will have important uses, containing the al-Qaeda tendency is going to be largely psychological. Producing a detailed strategy for this predicament is beyond my abilities, and this post is on the long side already. But I’ll finish up by quoting a couple of thoughtful discussions of these issues from inside the US establishment.

Robert L Hutchings, of the National Intelligence Council:

“It is worth recalling that [George] Kennan made a sharp distinction between the Soviet leaders and the Russian people. His strategy of containment was aimed at the regime, whose aggressive impulses needed to be countered. But he also argued for a strategy of engagement with the Russian people, whom he refused to see as our permanent enemies. Hard as it may be to get beyond the anti-American sentiment so prevalent in the Muslim world today, it is important for us to undertake a similar strategy of engagement – and to do so with reasonable hopes of finding a meeting place.

“[Despite] sharply rising anti-Americanism… people in Muslim countries place a high value on such democratic values as freedom of expression, freedom of the press, multiparty political systems, and equal treatment under the law. Large majorities in almost every Muslim country favor free market economic systems and believe that Western-style democracy can work in their own country.”

And an academic paper by Lt Col. Cheryl L Smart, of the US Army War College:

“Traditional U.S. instruments of counterterrorist policy have not been successful in breaking down the terrorist organizations into more traditional national groups. Instead, they seem to have facilitated its development towards ever more dispersed, non-hierarchical network organizations.

“Our [counterterrorism] strategy really seems to be an updated version of the Containment and Rollback strategy of the 1980s. Containment may have worked well against the Soviet Union, but there is no evidence that was ever successful against terrorists.

“We define the global terrorist jihadists as a fundamentally different enemy. They combine corrupted ancient beliefs with modern technology. They are organized in an information age network structure and are configured to conduct a new type of warfare termed Netwar. Yet we assume that, if we pressure this enemy in multiple regions around the world, they will return to more traditional modes of operation on smaller scales, confined to ever smaller areas, eventually nations, where they can be completely eradicated. This is fundamentally unchanged from our notions of how to combat state sponsored terrorism. The evidence of the last few years indicates that the enemy will not ‘de-globalize’, but will evolve into something else, continuing to operate globally.”

Friday, January 12, 2007

Faith healing on the NHS

A while ago, I used this idea as a satirical notion as part of an argument against faith schools. Now reality has caught up:

The NHS should provide more faith-based care for Muslims… says Edinburgh University's Professor Aziz Sheikh.

It’s not as deranged as the idea I was ridiculing, but it’s still triumph of identity politics over common sense.

Professor Sheikh said a better picture of the health profile and experiences of British Muslims was needed to help them access services. “The limited health data show that Muslims are about twice as likely to self report poor health and disability as the general population. Muslims are predominantly congregated in the inner city slums, have the lowest household income, poorest educational attainment, and highest unemployment and experience more poverty than any other faith community.”

If disproportionate poverty is causing ill-health among Muslims, that’s bad. But not all Muslims are poor, and most people whose health suffers due to poverty are not Muslims. If we want health services to operate differently in relation to different local conditions, then why not focus on poverty directly rather than a crude, partial proxy?

“Many Muslims, to maintain modesty, prefer to see a same sex clinician. Such choice is typically unavailable despite the higher number of women doctors in the NHS.”

Such an attitude is hardly unique to Muslims.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Cutting up the fabric of society

Maybe the Tory donors-for-dinners (look, I’m trying) scandal should be viewed as part of a broader dining obsession within the party.

On this, Tom H is in fine form:

“It starts with an inability to recognise a fish fork, and all too quickly it ends with beating old ladies to death in the street.”

Although, as he readily accepts, he’s got some magnificent material to work with…

Painful Ruth Kelly joke

Via Antonia:

“I hear Opus Dei wanted to help Ruth Kelly out with her school fees, but they’ve had to tighten their belts a bit lately.”

Cash for croutons? Dinnergate?

“Sir Philip Mawer, the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, has launched a full-scale inquiry into the ‘dinners for cash’ scandal involving 19 Conservative MPs and peers, including the party leader, David Cameron.”

I don’t think ‘dinners for cash’ is a great name for a scandal. There must be something punchier we can use.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Iffy science

Richard Buggs, of Truth in Science (aka Intelligent Design Theory in Schools), has wise words for us:

“But, whatever the limitations of Darwinism, isn't the intelligent design alternative an ‘intellectual dead end’? No. If true, ID is a profound insight into the natural world and a motivator to scientific inquiry.”

I couldn’t agree more. If it’s true, then it’s a good insight. And if smoking is harmless, then it’s not a health risk. If oak trees are animals, then some animals have leaves. If the Taj Mahal is made of apricot jam, then apricot jam is an excellent building material.

It makes you think

The brain, as well as being the cleverest organ of the body, is also the one whose parts have the best names. Some are exotic, some are poetic, and some are (inappropriately) evocative.

  • Thalamus

  • Hypothalamus

  • Pons

  • Medulla oblongata

  • Hippocampus (nothing to do with hippos or universities)

  • Amygdala

  • Limbic system (nothing to do with limbs)

  • Neocortex

  • Cerebellum

  • Corpus callosum

  • Olfactory tract (not an obscure political pamphlet that stinks)

  • Tectum

  • Basal ganglia (not a lanky Swiss bloke)

  • Pituitary stalk – aka the infundibulum

  • Corona radiata (nothing to do with sunshine)

  • Striatum

  • Globulus pallidus

  • Peduncle (not your dad’s brother who likes walking)

  • Claustrum

  • Fornix

  • Arachnoid mater (nothing to do with spiders or your mum)

  • Anterior commissure

  • Insula (not the bit of the brain that makes you small-minded)

  • Cuneus

  • Precuneus

  • Dentate gyrus (nothing to do with teeth)

  • Fornicate gyrus (nothing to do with – you know…)

  • Posterior horn (no comment)

  • Cingulate sulcus

  • Superior cistern (not a better class of toilet)

  • Cistern of lamina terminalis (not a toilet that’s been given a shiny finish)

  • “And many more…”

Friday, January 05, 2007


This week’s Economist has an article about the UN. It’s a perfectly good discussion of the challenges facing Ban Ki-moon, the new secretary-general, and the power politics inherent in the UN.

But the title of the piece is ‘Mission impossible?’ Which made me smile.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Selection and comprehensives

The Centre for Policy studies has published a paper [PDF] by Norman Blackwell (onetime policy adviser to John Major), entitled ‘Three Cheers for Selection: How grammar schools help the poor’. A pity he didn’t have the guts to call it ‘Three Cheers for Rejection: How secondary moderns help the poor’, but you can’t have everything.

Blackwell pushes the standard pro-grammar ideological buttons, and there’s the usual downplaying of the consequences of secondary moderns. Also, as you’d expect, there’s disregard for the fact that a ‘comprehensive’ in the vicinity of a grammar is reduced to de facto secondary modern status by default. The paper marshals some dodgily selective (how apt) statistics and is notable for the funniest attempt to spin an inconvenient opinion poll that I’ve seen in ages (nicely trashed by Luke Akehurst).

Courageously, Blackwell addresses head-on the argument that grammars favour the better-off: “in selective LEAs, the proportion of able children attending grammar schools from families eligible for free school meals is still only half that of able children from better off families.” His answer is as compelling as it is thorough: “more still needs to be done”.

What the research says

Most interestingly, though, he cites research by York University’s Professor David Jesson, purportedly showing that grammars get better results for high-fliers than comps. But peer into the footnotes, and you discover that Blackwell is actually citing a year-old Sunday Times editorial that mentions Jesson’s work. It says that he tracked a group of bright 11-year-olds: “some went to independent or grammar schools, some to high achieving comprehensives and the remainder to comprehensives with a record of low achievement”.

The results were that many “were let down by poor schooling, failing to get five or more A or A* GCSEs, in contrast to those who went to grammars or high achieving comprehensives”. The paper is unsuprised and thunders about the need for more grammars.

Well, are you surprised? Are you shocked and amazed that schools (including some comps) classed as ‘high-achieving’ produce higher achievements than other schools (including some comps) classed as ‘low-achieving’? Or are you just amused that the Sunday Times’s argument for grammars tacitly acknowledges that comps can be as good?

But rather than rely on paraphrases and third-hand interpretations, I think it’d be nice to hear what Professor Jesson actually says [PDF]. He observes that there is:

“lower performance in those areas which still organise their schools on selective lines. A government committed to raising standards for all must not exclude from its agenda those currently educated in ‘secondary modern’ schools – these pupils are currently seriously disadvantaged in GCSE performance by the way that their schooling system operates. Maintaining that disadvantage should not be an option.”

Yes, that’s right. The overall effect of the selection/rejection system is to produce worse results.

(Mike Ion has more detail on Jesson’s research.)

How to be really picky

A few years ago, I disconcerted myself briefly by realising that I supported selective education – and always had done. But I support it in a way that reinforces my belief in comprehensive schools: very simply, schools with a mixed-ability intake can be more efficiently selective in their teaching than can a grammar/secondary modern system.

You see, I went to a comp that streamed us, each year, into different ability groups for different subjects. I didn’t find out until long after I’d left that not all comps did this. Streaming seems so obvious.

Of course you’re likely to be more successful with classes of similar ability. Of course children don’t develop their abilities at the same rate as each other. And of course children have different areas of strength and weakness.

But how does one-off all-or-nothing selection at 11 help the late developers? Or the kids who do well early on but later fall behind? Or the kids who are good at maths but bad at English – which school is designed for their needs?

Efficient, ability-sensitive selective education requires that children be able to move between teaching groups as appropriate. This requires streaming: changing school as performance improves or worsens would be administrative and emotional chaos, as well as being too crude to deal with subject-specific issues. And as selection can be done better within a school, what’s the sense in having a two-tier system to complicate things?

A streamed comprehensive-intake system also has the advantages of not creating a lot of low-status, low-aspiration swamps for the majority of kids to sink into.

The wrong kind of choice

The Blackwell paper also praises choice – and there are decent arguments for giving parents a real choice of state schools where feasible (as long as the power to choose doesn’t depend on wealth). It’s often said that schools competing for students can drive up standards across the board. Maybe so.

But that’s not an argument the grammarians (and their quieter alter egos, the secondary modernists) can use. The argument they have to make is that it’s a good thing for parents to be forced to make their 10- and 11-year-olds compete, so that these children can avoid the scapheap and win the privilege of being chosen by one of the few good schools to prop up its place in the league tables.

Which kids are going to win that competition: the bright yet disadvantaged ones with untapped potential? Or the ones whose parents can buy them private coaching?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

In the mood for fisking

I’ve had a bit of a rant about Neal Lawson’s current blather on how the secular left has lost its principles.

The Labour Humanist and Luke Akehurst have replied as well, a little more politely and calmly.

Poverty is absolutely relative

It struck me the other day that the concept of absolute poverty doesn’t make any sense. Poverty is necessarily relative.

Let me explain. Relative poverty, as commonly discussed, refers to being worse off than other people. Absolute poverty, as commonly discussed, refers to having a small amount of actual money. So if everybody suddenly had twice as much money, then relative poverty would remain unchanged but absolute poverty would be hugely reduced.

But this assumes that income increases wouldn’t be inflationary, which they doubtless would. Because if your income goes up by, say, 10%, but the cost of everything goes up 10% as well, you’re no better off.

Now, say Bob has an annual income of £4000. By any reasonable standard, we would class him as being in absolute poverty. But if we’re talking about the year 1907, then suddenly it’s obvious that he’s very rich, because everything was so very much cheaper then.

So poverty can’t possibly be defined as mere amounts of money. It has to take into account what that money can buy. But then you face the question: how do you decide what level of purchasing power is important?

All sorts of reports on changes in poverty rates – by government bodies, think-tanks and research organisations – make the standard distinction between relative poverty (below 60%, say, of median income in each year) and ‘absolute’ poverty. For the latter, they have to move the poverty line for each year to keep up not with earnings growth but with price rises. They typically use 1997 as a baseline to assess changes under this government, or 1979 as a baseline when considering the last government.

But what does it mean to talk about incomes today in comparison with the 1997 median? What do such comparisons tell us? Nothing. If we want to know about the 2007 income distribution, we need the 2007 median. (Alternatively, if we want to know how the poorest have fared over ten years, we need to look at the real income increases for that group and perhaps compare with other, richer groups.)

However we want to make our comparison, we have to set a baseline. And from that point, the relativity creeps in. Perhaps it’s not today’s poor relative to today’s well-off, but today’s poor relative to the poor of a decade ago.

Another source of relativity affects definitions of poverty that are supposedly nothing to do with income comparisons. The US official poverty line is an ‘absolute’ measure, defined in terms of being able to afford the food, shelter and clothing needed to maintain “healthy living”. Bar a few technical adjustments, this definition is unchanged since 1964. The assumptions that underlie it, though, are not: views of what counts as “healthy living” change all the time.

Advances in medicine, particularly diagnostics, influence public standards of healthiness. Shifts in government policy can strengthen or weaken the link between income and access to healthcare, affecting expectations of treatment. And lifestyle trends will have impacts on health standards – typically varying between different income groups.

(Futhermore, well-known research on British civil servants – all well clear of destitution – shows a clear connection between health and socioeconomic status, which of course is essentially relative.)

Even if you ignore comparisons with the median income and focus on the affordability of some basket of goods and services, society still has to take a view on what counts as a minimally tolerable standard of living. And as society changes, so will that view.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Your hands in my life: a cry for help

Happy 2007, girls and boys.

I don’t really go for new year’s resolutions. But here’s a new year’s experiment. It might come to nothing; it might turn out quite interesting; or I might well live to regret it. But I need your help with it.

In a little under six weeks, I’ll be turning 30. As my boyish good looks are still more or less holding up, my mind is turning to thoughts of ‘what the hell have I done with my life?’ rather than ‘how did I become this booze-ravaged shell that I see in the mirror?’ – which I understand is a popular approach to big birthdays.

So, in the spirit of doing things with my life, this is what I want from you: suggestions.

I want ideas for things that I could do while still in my 20s: things that might be good anecdotal value, character-building (by which I don’t mean ‘horribly traumatic’), horizon-broadening, a bit of a laugh – whatever. And please stretch yourselves beyond the clich├ęd ‘30 things to do before you’re 30’ lists that appear in those dreary lifestyle magazines that I don’t read (if I have to have one more bloody threesome with twin Swedish supermodels…).

There are constraints of time, money and location (London). Plus my personal veto. I obviously don’t guarantee I’ll do whatever anyone suggests, but if something catches my fancy then I’ll give it a shot and report back.

Pop ideas (serious or otherwise) into the comments box – or, if you prefer, email me.

[Swallows nervously...]